From the time she was a seven-year-old in Denver, Dayle Friedman knew she wanted to be a rabbi. But her career path became clear as an undergraduate at Brandeis University, when she volunteered at “leading Shabbat services at what we called an ‘old-age home.’”
Ever since, she has combined a love for Judaism and fascination with aging, serving as the longtime chaplain at the Philadelphia Geriatric Center and the founder of Hiddur: The Center for Aging and Judaism of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.
She has written two books on the subject: Jewish Visions for Aging: A Professional Guide for Fostering Wholeness and Jewish Pastoral Care: A Practical Handbook from Traditional and Contemporary Sources.
On Sunday, April 21, she will begin a two-day symposium on Judaism and aging at Adath Israel Congregation in Lawrenceville.
Friedman — whose website is growingolder.co — described her work in an April 5 phone interview with NJ Jewish News.
NJJN: What drew you to working with seniors?
Rabbi Dayle Friedman: I felt passionate about the nexus between older people and Judaism.
NJJN: Is there something special about the aging process for Jews?
Friedman: I don’t think there is something special about the aging process for Jews, but we do have wonderful resources in our tradition that speak to growing older in a profound way. Judaism can frame the experience of growing older and sustain our spirit as we are growing older and exploring the last third of life. Judaism can inspire and support us as we face inevitable challenges in growing older — loss, frailty, fragility, change, limits, and opportunities.
NJJN: What are those opportunities?
Friedman: Beyond midlife we have the opportunity to find out who we really are. A lot of the masks that are imposed on us fade away and we are face-to-face with ourselves.
NJJN: What do you advise Jewish people as they grow older?
Friedman: Dependency is one of the issues that really frighten people. We study Jewish texts. A rabbi who was known to be a great healer got sick and needed somebody else to be with him. The Talmud says, “The prisoner can’t free himself from jail.” We use that as a lens to see how hard it is for people to ask for help…. When I was a chaplain in a nursing home, I learned how profound it was to live in Jewish time, using the cycles of Shabbat and the holiday cycle as a way to give meaning to time.
NJJN: Are most of the people you deal with observant?
Friedman: Not so much. But a defining feature of the second half of life is the search for meaning. That is what Jewish life and religious life should be about. The Jewish community hasn’t yet grasped the opportunity for dynamic engagement…. Synagogues and Jewish organizations are profoundly ageist. They are terrified of the aging of the Jewish community. A huge percentage of resources is going toward younger people. It is important, but it is not the only thing. To dismiss the possibility that an older congregation can be vibrant is terrible.
NJJN: How do you help people cope with their own mortality?
Friedman: Our mortality is the thing that makes us seize the day. It can be empowering to say, “I don’t have unlimited time.” We need very much not to run away from death. We end up with treatment from medical technology that doesn’t help anybody.
NJJN: What will your message be to the people who come to hear you?
Friedman: In my view the greatest idolatry is that in the face of aging, things are not supposed to change. The things we have are ours for a limited time. Fragility is part of life, and the bonus we get from having more years to be on this planet comes at a price — some level of dependency.